Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Thing About Unions

I know how touchy a subject this is for a lot of people because of the sheer amount of workers in unions, but I think it’s an important one because of it’s effect on businesses and the economy.  And I want to be clear that I love the American worker, no matter how he or she comes.  However, I think that unions served their function at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that now they have gone way beyond that original intention of protecting workers’ conditions.  They are about gouging companies for as much as they can with little regard for the companies’ survival, and therefore, with little regard for the long-term welfare of individual worker anymore.  The union is an entity that has long ago outrun it's initial objective. 

I’ll start out with a story.  When I was fifteen years old, I went to work for Hughes Market’s Store Number One on Ventura Boulevard and Goldwater Canyon Boulevard (now a Ralph’s) as a box boy.  My duties, as you would probably guess, were to efficiently pack customers’ barrel sized paper bags with the items that they had purchased.  I became, after a time, the second fastest box boy employed there after a packing “master” named, Hirach.  Hirach was of Hispanic descent, was short and stout, slightly older than I by a couple of years, and to be certain, guy was fast as lightening.  He just had the feel for packing bags. 

To get on a short tangent, the trick with packing bags, in those days before the plastic bags came about, was to really digest the rectangular cube shape that the bags contained, fill the bottoms and sides with enough hard items to give the bag structure (but not to overload their weight), then to fill in the middle to tops of them with lighter perishables and such.  The feel for the groceries as you saw them coming down the conveyor belt, and their touch translated into an immediate knowledge of where those items needed to go into the current bag being filled, or perhaps, be put aside for creating the foundation of the next bag.  For those of us who were the most efficient box boys (and girls), this immediacy in knowing where to place the groceries was what propelled us to the top of our game.  Mastery at any level is enjoyable, I suppose. 

I worked at Hughes Market for about three years; a period that overlapped the end of high school and the beginning of my university years.  During the later educational period, I worked there during the summers when school was out, and my parents wanted me to do something more constructive than loitering the streets of Sherman Oaks and Studio City.  It made sense to me as well because earning money was never out of favor for me.  When I got hired at the market, I was required by the union representative at the store, tall, slim, older, fiery red headed woman named, Martha, to join the union.  I believe it was Local 770, but I could be wrong.  It’s been a long time.  I joined, not quite understanding what I was doing in it, though my parents told me that it was a way for employees to band together and get the level of pay and benefits that they felt they deserved without getting fired. 

I think the minimum wage was $2.65 per hour, and that maybe I was earning around $6.20 per hour, and in fact, that is what had attracted me to getting hired at the market, and to leave Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlor, a non-union store where I had previously been employed and making something like $4.50 per hour.  Again, it’s been a very long time, so I may be wrong about my recollection of those wages.  But still, it gives a sense of the types of wages we are talking about in relation or union and non-union jobs that were available to me.  So I was gung-ho about having a job that paid higher wages.

During my time there, I experienced two strikes, both of which were for concessions that either didn’t directly affect me, or whose benefits to me I was wholly unaware of.  I was simply told a day ahead of each that our union was going on strike, and that I shouldn’t work.  I recall how on both occasions, the Store Director, Al, normally a very large and intimidating Italian man who spend almost all of his recreational time in Vegas, personally called me at my parents’ house and asked me in a buddy-like voice, asking me to work that day.  He said, “Hey Fred, I see you’re scheduled to work this afternoon and I wanted to make sure that you were coming in today.” 

I told him that the union had asked that I didn’t, and so I thought I wouldn’t.  I really struggled with this because here was the man ultimately responsible for my having been hired (for, he had given the final “yay” or “nay,” on accepting me into what was a hard place to get a job), combined with the fact that I have always felt a sense of duty to perform tasks and promises that I had agreed upon.  And here I was telling him that I wouldn’t work for him that day, or any upcoming days because some entity that I literally had no contact with, save the union rep-manager, Martha.

Well, if you haven’t guessed it already, it didn’t sit well with me; the whole “team” thing with regard to everyone standing up for everyone else’s work situation desires.  I knew this at that age, and I never again liked that idea.  It wasn’t only because of my sense of duty and that I was skipping out on doing what I said I would do. It was also that the “union” was completely faceless to me.  Maybe I was too much of an underling to warrant any specific attention to with regard to inviting me to become aware of and participate in issues.  That they could require that I join them and pay dues and that I not complete my assigned duties (during striking activities) for reasons that were never explained or even brought to me just kind of bugged me at my core.  I was just expected to behave according to the whims of their political gestures. 

The only other time that I was in a union was a couple of decades later when I first went to work for the animation division of The Walt Disney Company.  Prior to this, I had been a production assistant on a television show at the same studio for which my role was a non-union one.  However, when I was hired at Disney in the same capacity, I was required to join the OPEIU (Office and Professional Employees International Union), I don’t remember the local number if there even was one.  My hourly pay was okay, not great, and there were dues each few months that I paid.  I never endured a strike at Disney and I also never had any contact whatsoever with union representatives and I never knew what was going on behind the scenes.  So there really isn’t much for me to report on that experience.  My hard earned dues just seemed to dissipate into the wind. 

Sometime during this period at Disney, I happened to be visiting my parents in their home when a close friend of the family dropped by.  My dad and I were having a conversation in our family room and I had just started telling him my uncomfortable feeling about unions.  That, because of the agreements negotiated that made it difficult for companies to terminate someone for poor performance, and because of all of the additional concessions demanded, that they tend to really be a “drag” factor on companies’ ability to turn their companies in new directions when need be.  My father, a life long democrat, understood what I was saying.

Just then, the family friend entered and sat down at the table my father and I were sitting at.  She asked what we were discussing, and I filled her in on the feelings I had started to develop about unions.  My dad got visibly uncomfortable, not only because he knew that this woman was also a democrat and would disagree with me, but also because up to that point, my dad really hadn’t been objecting to what I was saying.  Now that we had an audience, out of a fear of his letting the guest feel politically estranged, my dad asserted a democratic stance, “Well, a lot of people would disagree with you, Fred.  Many feel that unions are a very important part of our society.  In fact, (pointing across the table to the family friend) her father was in a union because he was a coal miner.  So, you might be in the minority here.”

It was odd to say the least because while my dad and I had been talking privately, he seemed to consider and understand my points thoughtfully.  And yet, when this woman sat down, he made a visible stance, a sort of towing the line, for his long held democratic beliefs.  The woman, by the way, didn’t say anything, but just sat there, allowing my father to be her advocate for those moments, which evoked in me a slight feeling of betrayal by my father.  It was a strange circumstance, and a personal one, and yet, I tell it because it made an impression on me.  It made me realize that a lot of people, including my own father, hold hard to their political beliefs because those beliefs have become so fused with their own identity, and that maybe they just don't sit down and consider enough of the variables that are out there. 

That epiphany within me happened because I saw that shift in my father’s stance between when it was just him and me talking, and when another person, a known fellow democrat of his, was added to the mix.  And if we were to have put onto a secret ballot for him at the time, “Unions,” and “No-Unions,” he might have well voted for unions, given his life experience from having been born in 1928 and having seen the effects of the Depression and of terrible working conditions.  But I know that while we were talking, he was with me and agreed with the points that I was making.  I suppose that the purpose of this whole anecdote is to support the fact that I allow myself to look at political and world situations and not to feel tied to long entrenched beliefs from my past.  For if I did, I would be a life-long Democrat like my father.  But I am not. 

Getting back to the mechanics of unions, while paying dues, I never knew if I agreed or disagreed with the political efforts of the entity that I was continually sending dues money to each payment period.  They were invisible to me in my surroundings.  One might say that they were making sure I wasn’t working for peanuts, and one might say that they were making sure that I couldn’t be fired at the drop of a hat.  But there are labor laws that exist now.  And that’s the first place I want to go with this discussion.

There was a time in the United States, as in most of the world, when labor conditions were absolutely terrible.  Safety of workers was of little concern to employers as were their well-being.  And so people organized themselves to gain power to change the deplorable conditions so mentioned.  There was an appropriate time for unions.  But we are not there anymore.  There are rather strict labor laws in place, and there are plenty of good attorneys who, given the slightest whiff of perceived misconduct, will go after employers who cross those lines. 

The problem is that unions today go mainly after concessions that maybe individuals should go after for themselves if they can prove that they have the skills that warrant such additional benefits.  But for whole swaths of the labor force to band together and force owners of companies to give benefits that only end up hurting the company as a whole is a bad idea.  And that’s how it is now.  Most of the major auto manufacturers are forced to pay out such huge concessions (wages and benefits) that they are crippled in running a business the way it should be run. 

April 5, 2016: “Ford Motor Co. plans to build a new $1.6 billion auto assembly plant in Mexico, creating about 2,800 jobs and shifting small-car production from the U.S. at a time when moving jobs south of the border has become a major issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. The company announced the plant in the San Luis Potosi state Tuesday without saying specifically what cars it will build there. But the United Auto Workers union has said Ford plans to shift production of the Focus compact and C-Max small gas-electric hybrid from suburban Detroit to Mexico, where the cars can be made at lower cost and more profitably. Under the new UAW contract, Ford factory workers get about $60 per hour in wages and benefits, while auto workers in Mexico average about $8 per hour, according to the Center for Automotive Research, a Michigan industry think tank.”  (CBS NEWS)

What a lot of people, including the United Auto Workers union, don’t really realize fully is that we are now in a global marketplace and have been for the last couple of decades.  Companies can’t afford to give in to heavy concessions from unions when it raises their bottom line to a level where they can’t sustain their businesses.  In work, I believe that there should not be any “guarantee” that you will continue to have your job if you are not performing competitively.  That is the problem with teachers’ unions and tenure.  They have made a situation in which teachers do not have to be competitive anymore.  Teachers are grossly underpaid, but union installed tenure and lack of accountability does not help their situation.  In this global market place, you and the worker have to keep your skills up, stay afloat all of the current trends that are within your industry.  To not do so is to stagnate, and any situation where you are guaranteed anything will stagnate you and your business.  Companies can’t afford to have those types of workers anymore, and it’s up to each individual to keep up to date on their jobs. 

A lot of politicians and workers see successful companies as a great source of revenue and as targets for concessions, respectively.  This is obvious by how much corporations are taxed in the United States, resulting in all of the corporate inversions that have been taking place. Companies such as Pfizer see how moving to Ireland, where the corporate tax is much less.  Pfizer says it would go from a 25% tax basis to a 17% tax basis during it’s first year if it’s able to do it’s corporate inversion.  That’s no laughing matter, and it’s something that for some reason many politicians don’t see as a threat and as a result of overtaxing companies. (The Guardian) If you want to remove hundreds of billions of dollars from our economy, then go ahead and overtax the companies that are making jobs for hundreds of thousands of people and just watch those companies pack up and leave in a hurry. 

Let's review: What happens when you create a globally uneven playing field for American companies?  They move their auto plants from Detroit to Mexico, and then there are no jobs for anyone. This is a global economy; if the individual worker can’t compete in terms of skills, and if there are unions pressuring companies to raise their bottom line, and if the corporations are taxed too highly by Federal, State and local governments, then they simply leave the U.S.A.  We shouldn't try to blame them or sanction them.  We did it TO them!  Cause and effect. 

The reason that I would never want to be a part of a union again is that I would be forced to pay dues, then I would not know exactly what my dues are being used for in the way of political activities that I am not aware of.  And, to be frank, I don’t want some entity doing my bidding.  That is my responsibility.  If I think that I am good enough, skilled enough, educated enough, and confident enough, then I can go ask for what I want, or I can go work somewhere else.  Why would I want union representatives using me as a numerical pawn at the cost of them asking for things that I don’t necessarily want, and as an advocate for people who truly may not have maintained or increased their skill sets, and risk the company just going away.  That doesn’t do anyone any good. 

I had an animator friend who had been laid off and was in some financial trouble. He was having to sell his house as a short sale, or else let it go to foreclosure.  He went to his union to see if he could pull some money out of his retirement account in order to help himself pay for his mortgage, which would have allowed him to stay a few months longer before having to make the decision to bail on his house.  In short, his union said, “No.”  He couldn’t use a portion of his own retirement money for the crisis that he was in, and probably would never have to face again in his life, since this was part of the financial meltdown. 

He wasn’t happy with them at all.  And I understood why.  I am certain they said no because they were using his funds to service the retirement of other people.  That’s really messy, (it sounds like how the Social Security system operates, doesn’t it?), and I wouldn’t want to be a part of any such game.  If I have a retirement account and I run into a critical situation, I would want to have the choice to do whatever I wanted with my money, even taking a penalty if need be, to help myself survive.  I hope that I never have to do that.  But, the point is that my friend had no choice.  He didn’t have control of his own money or situation for the “good” of everyone in the union.  I think we can be a bit more individualized than that in America.  We should be trusted to manage our own money and our own lives. 

Another problem with the concessions that unions broker, after essentially holding the company’s workers hostage from them through strikes and such, is that those concessions are often irreversible.  When economic growth slows, and the global markets adjust, at they are occasionally prone to do, the companies are stuck giving out the same huge concessions that locked in and can’t adjust themselves to the market place.  That puts the companies in a very difficult bind because it gravely increases the headwinds that they face. 

Then, there is the ugly side of unions.  Would people rather I not discuss this point?  I think it’s important though.  We all know from the news media and from movies that when employees do not agree with the associated unions, union members have had the tendency to become violent against the non-believing “scabs,.” a word, I’m sure, that was conjured up by union representatives and workers to evoke the most revolting of feelings for people who don’t happen to agree with them.  It’s peculiar too if you think about it.  Most union members are politically liberal and would claim to espouse the equal and humane treatment of others within their philosophies. 

And yet, when members have crossed the picket line, they have been spat at, their tires slashed, clothes ripped, they have been assaulted and sometimes murdered.  I can’t think of a greater example of hypocrisy than that.  This is mob, as in, “the mob,” gang mentality.  I was aware of that element in unions as a sixteen year old working at Hughes Market, and that is why I didn’t go into work those strike days.  It wasn’t because I agreed with, or was even aware of the issues at hand.  I didn’t want to “stand up” for the box boy’s union demands, or for the meat cutters, who by the way, were making a huge hourly wage at the time. I didn’t want to declare to my dad and my mom, “I am staying home because I want to feel a part of my fellow union members.”

Conversely, I was a little confused and dazed after I got off of the phone with the store director, Al, after he had personally asked me to come into work, and I asked my dad if I had made the right decision in telling him, "no."  My dad said that it probably was right not to go to work because the union reps would probably work out a deal within a few days and I’d be working again.  My dad even warned me that I could be called a scab.  But I didn’t decline my scheduled work for any of those altruistic reasons.  I was afraid some union member would go out and key up the sides of my Camaro and slash my tires if I went in for my scheduled shift.  That’s a terrible impression for union groups to give a sixteen year old boy.